State Department officials have been ordered to pare back passages in a soon-to-be-released annual report on global human rights that traditionally discuss women’s reproductive rights and discrimination, according to five former and current department officials.
The directive calls for stripping passages that describe societal views on family planning, including how much access women have to contraceptives and abortion.
A broader section that chronicles racial, ethnic and sexual discrimination has also been ordered pared down, the current and former officials said.
The move, believed to have been ordered by a top aide to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, reflects the Trump administration’s rightward turn from the Obama administration on family planning issues. It also appears to highlight the stated desire of Tillerson and President Donald Trump to make human rights a lower priority in U.S. foreign policy.
Some career State Department officials — particularly female staffers — are suspicious of the motives behind the changes, which they fear could undermine the report’s impact and integrity. A State Department spokesperson said any changes were being made for focus and “clarity.”
“This sends a clear signal that women’s reproductive rights are not a priority for this administration, and that it’s not even a rights violation we must or should report on,” one serving State Department official said.
The sources did not know the name of the aide who gave the instruction, but understood the person to have a senior position.
The annual human rights document is the product of a long and painstaking process of compiling information from U.S. embassies. An often dryly written explanation of conditions in dozens of nations, it can nonetheless cast a harsh light on governmental and societal practices.
The report is relied on by a range of people, from U.S. lawmakers to political activists. Asylum seekers from countries such as China, for instance, have cited the report to support claims that they are subject to forced sterilization or abortion.
Past human rights reports have covered the issue of women’s reproductive rights in detail, offering numerous statistics and anecdotes to paint a picture of the conditions in particular countries.
Last year’s report, noted, for instance, that India has “unmet needs for contraception, deaths related to unsafe abortion, maternal mortality, and coercive family planning practices, including coerced or unethical sterilization and policies restricting access to entitlements for women with more than two children.”
While coercive measures by governments are expected to continue to be chronicled in this year’s report, the current and former officials said, many other elements on reproductive rights will likely not be.
The subsection is also expected to be renamed, changing from “Reproductive Rights” to “Coercion in Population Control.”
In a statement to POLITICO, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that the way the department “presents the report’s material has changed from time to time,” and that “this year we are better focusing some sections of the report for clarity.” She said the department was not “downgrading coverage of LGBT or women’s issues.”
Nauert added that this year’s report will try to avoid “duplicating statistics that are readily available from international organizations,” and that officials “will sharpen the focus of the report on abuses of internationally recognized human rights and the most egregious issues.”
The former and current State officials said that a top Tillerson aide had requested the changes in recent days at what was effectively the last minute. The revisions could force State officials to miss the statutory deadline of Feb. 25 to release the report.
The directive was communicated last week to employees of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. The bureau is now scrambling to make the revisions.
The current and former officials said the late request is evidence of ongoing managerial problems at State, where many top positions remain unfilled and a small group of aides to Tillerson have centralized power while slowing decision-making. The human rights bureau is one of several still lacking an assistant secretary more than a year into Tillerson’s tenure.
“It’s not unusual for an administration to come in and make changes” on how the report is produced and what it emphasizes, one of the former State officials said. “It’s weird to do it this late in the game.”
The human rights bureau also has been directed to cut back a broader section in the various country reports generally called “discrimination, societal abuses and trafficking in persons.” Along with women’s reproductive rights, that section touches on topics such as anti-Semitism or pressures on the gay and lesbian community. It also includes discrimination that’s not necessarily government-sponsored.
For instance, last year’s report spotlighted anti-Semitic incidents and hate speech in Poland, citing a banner unfurled by soccer fans that read, “Let [the Jews] burn.” The report added that the fans “then burned three effigies representing Jews.”
The former officials said the Tillerson aide had requested those sections be reframed to focus more on what governments are or aren’t doing in relation to such challenges while paring back the emphasis on nongovernmental influences. For instance, the Roman Catholic church’s influence over attitudes toward gays and lesbians in a particular country might be dropped.
Like many Republican administrations before it, the Trump team has instituted a policy prohibiting giving U.S. aid to foreign groups that provide or promote abortions. The Trump administration went further than all of its predecessors, putting such conditions on groups that receive global health funding in general — not just money for family planning.
Tillerson and Trump have both said human rights should not block other U.S. foreign policy priorities, especially when it to comes to key allies such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia. But the administration hasn’t held back on talking about human rights when speaking out against enemies like Iran and North Korea.
Last year, Tillerson broke with tradition and chose not to personally unveil his department’s human rights report — dismaying activists and lawmakers, including Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who believe human rights should be a pillar of U.S. foreign policy.
It is unclear whether Tillerson will personally unveil this year’s report.